MOHAMMED CHABCHOUL MAKES HOME-STYLE DISHES WITH PASSION
Working as Head Chef at the Grand Millennium Dubai, Mohammed Chabchoul is a chef who brings the best he has, as his experience has moved him among regions like France, the UK, and the UAE. A number of high-value clients and stars frequent his restaurant where many praise his innovative dishes. The story of this determined man indeed has a spark of inspiration.
Lebanese people are known for their deep-rooted cuisine, and that might have inspired you to become a chef. When did you realize that you have a knack for cooking?
Back in my childhood, I really loved cutting and garnishing fruits and I was usually delegated to this task whenever guests were visiting. I have to say, they’ve always admired my delicate dishes. On the other hand, my mother had an outstanding cooking “mojo” which was evident in the sweets, jams, and cheeses that she made. I will never forget the taste of the food she made us as she always looked up new recipes and different cooking techniques and she always managed to fill us with happiness.
I remember her Kishek and meat dish which she used to cook on the heater instead of the stove, that dish was a wonder of its own.
It always brought me joy to help my mother prepare and serve food on Fridays, especially when I used to put my passion into preparing hummus and garnish it with fresh vegetables. My hummus amazed my mother and so she built my confidence that a bright future as a chef awaited me.
Where did you receive your education in culinary arts?
I attended a Culinary Arts School in Syria and studied there for 3 years, then I moved on to study at the High Institute for Hotel and Tourism where I spent two years continuing my studies in the same field, then I spent a year studying business management.
One of the encounters which I found amazing at that time is the fact that there are many ways to cook an egg; inside and outside the eggshell. I was astonished by the knowledge that I’ve acquired and realized that cooking is a boundless and renewing universe.
After working in more than 7 hotels, you have clearly culminated great experience in the realm of hostelry. How do you describe your culinary signature?
I tend to gather eastern flavours and accentuate their properties without resorting to complexity when preparing my dishes. In addition, my style in presenting dishes relies on three main factors which are: the product’s quality, which must be uncompromisable, ease of preparation and the aesthetics of the final product.
I try to serve dishes with a homey feel to it as the current trend inclines towards traditional dishes. Through chatting with hotel customers, I find a significant number of them asking for dishes that would remind them of their mothers’ cooking; a delicious meal without unnecessary additions. I find such requests to be reasonable and does not conflict with the use of modern culinary techniques, such as the use of sous vide cooking techniques for meat and chicken and the use of machine-dehydrated ingredients.
You sound like you are drawn to the French cuisine, aren’t you?
Absolutely! It is the origin of all European and international cuisines. I was lucky enough to work with one of the most famous chefs in the world, Chef Pierre Gagnaire, a recipient of 3 Michelin stars and a leader of the fusion cuisine movement. I was one of his staff members and I have learned, under his tutelage, a lot about the arts of the French cuisine and how to deal with ingredients. Furthermore, working with Chef Gagnaire taught me the meaning of working under stress, how to have an eye for details and that there is no room for failure. I will never forget the time when Chef Gagnaire whispered in my ear saying “You will become a great chef”.
I spent 3 months in France, where I learned to cook with precision and create a dish that would always leave our customers satisfied and craving more. Also, I have learned to use ingredients that I never thought would make a significant difference in the taste and presentation of my dishes, such as using sage with fish and chives with salads to add an exquisite taste.
Head Chef is a big title. What are the responsibilities that comes with such position?
I received this position 4 years ago while working at the Grand Millennium Dubai. I must say it is a demanding job and that requires focus and cultivating good leadership qualities. My subordinate team members and I work as one big family with the aim of bringing success to the hotel and the team at the same time.
Speaking of leadership, I never give commands and I always find time to help my team members; one by one. And whenever I make a decision, I always assume the responsibility of those decisions, regardless of the outcomes. And as much as I enjoy helping my teammates, I also find the opportunity to learn from them. In a nutshell, I never stop mentoring and I always work hard so my team can learn and follow up on state-of-the-art cooking techniques.
What are the least common spices and vegetables that you use in your dishes?
One of the least common spices I use is star anise; it makes a good addition to jams and anise bread. As for the vegetables, I use Balsam Pear, or Karela, which is an exotic Indian vegetable. Additionally, I have expanded my use of herbs like sage and rosemary in cooking.
Among the dishes you invented, what are the customers’ favourites?
Ah yes! There are many recipes that I invented and met my customers’ liking. For instance, there is the shawarma and falafel sushi. Simply, I created a fusion between a famous Japanese dish and a famous Arabic by placing shawarma and falafel on top of short-grained rice and serve it with common Arabian condiments like garlic sauce and pickles.
What foreign cuisines’ influences have recently enriched the Lebanese cuisine?
The Lebanese cuisine is flexible and can keep up with all new changes and advancements. After all, the Lebanese cuisine has acquired a great position on the top list of desirable middle eastern cuisines. Therefore, some relatively new vegetables and fruits have found their way to Lebanese cuisine. For instance, when making hummus, sometimes we replace tahini with avocado to create a lighter hummus dish with a different but nice taste. Also, some use kiwi as an ingredient in tabbouleh due to its tangy taste and extraordinary flavour.
How did other cultures inspire you to modernize traditional Lebanese dishes?
It is asserted that some traditional dishes must be prepared with its original recipe without any change in order to preserve its identity. On the other hand, I tried to add some new mixtures and ingredients to some other traditional dishes. And after some experimentation, I managed to come up with some delicious recipes with a modernized touch without compromising Arab culinary elements. For example, I made apple and cinnamon-stuffed kibbeh and modernized my tabbouleh with raspberry and quinoa.
What dishes do you have your signature on and what is the most recent addition to your menu?
One of my most recent inventions is a dish that consists of smoked salmon, potatoes, herbs and lemon zest. Simply, I lay the salmon on a plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge, then I wrap the smoked salmon around the seasoned mashed potatoes to form a ball shape, or should I say a pearl. It is very delicious!
The other dish I created is a dish I call “Salmonia”, which consists of fresh salmon seasoned with Arabic spices, groats and chilli pepper. The dish comes with a side of pickled cucumber and crispy grape leaves.
My touch is never complete unless I turn my dishes into a work of art that would leave my customers with a long-lasting good impression. Such small details are time consuming, not to mention the effort I make to find the right ingredients to give the dishes an aesthetic dimension and an amazing taste. It is like a song to my ear to hear people admire my dishes and get called an “artist” by them.
If you would consider writing a cookbook, what would it be about?
I believe my book would be about soups, since I believe that any soup can become a full meal when we add enough ingredients to make it balanced and nutritious such as adding protein in sufficient amounts. One of my favourite soups to make is a soup made of celery root, green apples and cream.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Satisfying all tastes and standing at a distance from all my guests. I’ve got to tell you, that is easier said than done.
What does this profession mean to you?
Commitment, enthusiasm, competition, and a warm feeling of joy and serenity. Based on that, I define my goals well and set tasks in a way that encourages me to be more productive and self-motivated. After all, this is the profession I love and will put my heart and soul into given that we are dealing with a profession that concerns people’s basic needs.
From your perspective, what should Arab cuisine take into account regarding the continuous advancements in international gastronomy?
Our cuisine has it is own unique varieties and rich, homogenous and healthy dishes. However, the whole world is advancing in terms of cooking equipment, ingredients and contents, which can affect a dish’s quality. Therefore, I believe that the Arab cuisine should take this matter into consideration and put it on the top of its priorities if it is aims to evolve on par with international cuisines.
Which country would you love to work in?
Honestly speaking, I have been working in Dubai since 2007. It is a city where I’ve experienced a quality of life that I’ve never experienced somewhere else, given how it takes in all cooking cultures and techniques and gives chefs the opportunity to enrich their experiences given the diversity of hotels here.
Still, I always wish I could return long to my beloved Lebanon one day, where I can meet up with other chefs who loved their careers to the extent they attained international acclaim. Besides, I also wish to share my experience with my fellow citizens.
In your opinion, what are the most critical pitfalls that chefs must avoid?
Arrogance. I mean, we have to be humble, no matter how high are ranks are. Also, we must have the enthusiasm to learn on a daily basis. There is no escaping this fact; we have to learn more and experiment much further during our leisure time to upgrade our skills.
When having a meal with the family, what are the dishes you prefer to have on the table?
There are many dishes that I like, but my top favourites are stuffed vegetables cooked in lamb broth, “Oazy” rice and freekeh with roasted chickens.
If you had the chance to do whatever you want regardless of how much it would cost, what would you do?
I would travel to as many countries as I could so I could try new dishes, especially Asian dishes. Traveling as a way of life has been my continuous passion after having the opportunity to mingle with people from different backgrounds and I believe this would help me understand other cultures even more. This brings to mind an experience I was privileged to have, which is the time when I worked in London, especially with street food vendors.
What is your ultimate dream?
I am looking forward to establishing my own restaurant franchises.
Thank You, Mohammed !
Are you also a passionate chef?
Sign up for free and be a part of it – an international network for chefs!